I’ve been on a Zelda binge lately. I suppose it’s because of the chatter around the Ocarina of Time PC “port” that’s been getting some good buzz, so I decided to go back and play… not Ocarina, but some of the other Zelda games from the period. Don’t ask me why.
I know this won’t be a revelation to many, but the Gameboy Color has some incredible Zelda games. I would, in fact, be willing to entertain the idea that the GBC has the best collection of Zelda games of any console. I think Breath of the Wild is definitely more fun, but it’s hard to compare it to the rest of the series because it’s so different. It’s a bit like comparing the original NES/GB Castlevanias to the Igavanias that came later; they have similarities, but ultimately they’re so different they don’t really belong in the same genre. Maybe Ocarina of Time or Twilight Princess beat the Gameboy titles out by a narrow margin… I’m still formulating my personal Zelda tier list. But if we’re just talking 2D Zeldas? Gameboy Color, hands down.
I know some will read this and say, “Whatever, Colin, take off your nostalgia goggles and look again.” Believe it or not, though, I only recently came to this conclusion. I bought Link’s Awakening DX and the Oracle duology on my 3DS a few years ago. The upcoming closure of the 3DS eShop reminded me to dust off the handheld and poke around and see if there were any games I wanted to play but never got around to buying. There were a few (mostly retro games that aren’t available in any other format. Get on that, Nintendo!), but somehow I ended up playing Link’s Awakening instead of those. I remember getting immediately frustrated by it the first time I tried it, and wrote it off into the same category as the two original NES titles. That is, the category of “showed promise, but was too limited by technical challenges and clunky design to be great.” Oh, how wrong I was. The game actually does a surprisingly good job at guiding you. I think it was a case of having skimmed the text, put the game down for a couple of weeks, then trying to come back a couple of weeks later. In retrospect, I could have used one of the phone booths to point me in the right direction, but starting over was probably the best call in this situation anyway.
I’m mostly really surprised at how much game they packed into a teeny little Gameboy cartridge. Seriously, how is Link’s Awakening comparable in length to Link to the Past on the SNES? I suppose there were some corners cut; the enemy variety isn’t that great, for instance, but, honestly, weren’t most 2D Zelda baddies just the same things with different sprites and maybe slightly different movement patterns? The dungeons are also really well designed; nary a tile is wasted.
The plot twist (spoiler warning for a nearly 30 year old game, I guess?), that the whole thing is a dream that Link has while (nearly?) drowning at sea, is interesting. It’s kind of like all of those episodes of Star Trek (Voyager especially) that end with time travel happening such that the whole episode never happened, but less frustrating. It was also an excuse for the game to do some weird stuff and make a lot of Nintendo references, like random 2D platformer sequences with Goombas and Piranha Plants for some reason. It also gives the whole thing a tinge of tragedy once you know. You can’t help but feel bad when the bosses start pleading with you not to wake the wind fish or we will all disappear, and as the game closes, it shows all the people of this world fade from view, ending with Marin, who Link clearly has a thing for. A lot of these themes were reused, albeit in a weirder, yet somehow subtler, kind of way, in Majora’s Mask, although I was never a fan of that particular game.
I know Nintendo put out a Switch remake of Link’s Awakening a couple of years ago. It looks cute, and pretty faithful to the original, but I think I prefer the GBC DX version. There’s something about that chunky GBC pixel art and chiptune music that’s just so charming. Again, the remake kept a lot of this charm, with the unique tilt-shift “toy” look, but it just seems like adding paint to a masterpiece. I’m glad that it got a remake so more people will be able to enjoy it (aside from being available on a modern console again, I know a distressing number of people who are biased against pixel art games, especially old ones) but I probably won’t pick it up unless it goes down to an unprecedented low price.
I have only just started Oracle of Seasons, but I’ve always heard great things about these games. It’s still weird to me that Nintendo, who is so picky when it comes to their IP, let Capcom make a few handheld titles in their precious Zelda series in the early aughts. I have played Minish Cap, and thought it was just OK, but so far OoS seems like a pretty strong successor to Link’s Awakening.
I actually had a Gameboy Color back in the day, but didn’t get into the Zelda series until later. It’s one of those games I wish I could go back and tell my past self to get because I would have loved it, but at least I have the chance to play them now.